Do you mark their work?

As a young boy, I had the extreme good fortune of having a mum who worked as the assistant librarian at the school library. I spent endless hours hanging around in there, slowly working my way around the shelves. By the time I left primary school, I had read the entire thing.

With such a voracious appetite for books, my years of high school English were marked by a wide range of reading, along with an adept use of vocabulary, imagination and lateral thinking. I had perceptive debating skills, and often found myself speaking in public on behalf of different student groups.

High school, of course, culminated in the Higher School Certificate. Every Australian kid knows beyond all doubt, that this is the most important test they will ever have to do. Their life’s trajectory hinges on the outcome of their HSC.

I never actually learned what my English mark was. It was simply recorded as <30%, the lowest possible score. I found this more ironic than disappointing.

school exam

Due to a lack of direction, and the imposition of life events, it was a few years before I went to university. On application, I found they had no interest in my HSC mark. I had one, and that was enough. Over the years, I went on to acquire more degrees than anybody has a right to have. Sometimes I was granted exemptions due to recognition of prior learning. This was always based on the unit outline from the previous course. It was never based on my performance.

For two separate university units I studied, they were so riddled with mistakes and ambiguities, that even within the education system, marking was impossible. There were lots of complaints. An obviously unacceptable position for the university, and one they could not really correct for, they eventually simply graded everybody with a pass.

For another unit, which I studied at an outlying campus with an inspiring teacher, our class so outperformed the main campus, that it was an embarrassment to them. Our marks were graded down to match the spread from the larger group.

The last time I received a high distinction, was for a unit where I never attended a single lecture or tutorial. I never looked at the text book. I arrived late for the final exam, and having forgotten the name of the unit I was supposed to be studying, I just took a seat next to someone I recognised and assumed I was in the right place. What I had done, however, was find some ‘practice exams’ tucked away behind a link in the unit outline, and rote learned all the answers the day before. To this day, I am torn between being pleased for working the system so effectively, and appalled at having such an experience classed as education.

Only a small minority of employers have ever shown any interest in what I actually studied to gain my qualifications. Some have actively resisted finding out. None have ever considered my marks relevant. In fact, the idea that a good student equates to a good employee, is commonly derided.

Over the last year or so, I have been involved in educating nursing staff and students inside the hospital where I work. I found it all quite bizarre at first. I am dealing with a population which routinely deals with blood, screaming, panic, and life threatening situations. As a broad rule, they do this calmly and proficiently. When faced with an assessment task or test, however, they baulk, avoid me, throw a tantrum, produce an endless variety of reasons why they cannot or should not be subjected to an exam, and generally behave in extremely odd ways. The fear of exam pressure haunts people all their lives.

These experiences and others have quite confirmed to me that assessment results are largely arbitrary, broadly meaningless, and often destructive.

NAPLAN year 3

With my oldest boy still in kindergarten, it is a little early in the piece to be feeling any pressing need for assessment, but I know it is coming. I realise that there needs to be some sort of method to gauge how much people have learned. I just cannot think of a publicly accepted alternative to the hopelessly ineffective method we have.

I am happy to concede that ‘test sitting’ is an important skill to be able to use in navigating an education system. We live in a culture obsessed with exams. Sooner or later, we all have to sit for them, it seems, so we might as well get high marks. ‘Test sitting’ then becomes a skill in its own right. It is something to be used in a semi-formal context, like structuring an essay, or writing a resume.

So tightly bound to the education process, it is a fundamental question I struggle with. Do you assess your home schooling students? If you do, how do you do it, and what are you aiming to achieve by doing so?

I am fascinated to know.

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About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a registered nurse, drink too much coffee, and intermittently renovate the house.
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11 Responses to Do you mark their work?

  1. ksawrites says:

    We haven’t done formal testing yet, but I am often comforted by the words of a friend, who has a daughter about to graduate: “If it’s something she truly needs to know, we simply don’t move on until she really feels comfortable with it. When she understands, she has ‘passed.'” (But I have young kids too — so I guess we’ll see!) 🙂

    • Blokeschool says:

      This seems to be the direction I am drifting in. I work to a list of competencies to try and keep myself on track. I guess that as the kids get older, this list will become increasingly refined and more specific in its aims. The decision to either ‘pass’ or ‘need further work’ is a fairly subjective one. It is certainly comforting to see that people further down the track work to a broadly similar idea, and get good results from it.

  2. J.C says:

    I have mostly young kids too, but I can feel the weight of this on me already. Eldest is 9, and all of a sudden people are asking how we make sure she’s on track, and what if we put her back into school and she’s so far behind etc etc… I have calmly stated that IF she were to go back to school, we’d spend the year prior making sure she was up to speed on all the regular topics.

    Currently she is miles ahead of her peers in science, because that is where her passion lies, but she’s more than likely behind in a few other areas. I don’t believe we will ever go back to traditional school, but the answer seems to satisfy people. What is more important to me is that she is happy, thriving, thirsting or knowledge, and those were things she never was at regular school.

    Yet, even without those questions I get asked, there feels an uncomfortable pull between the expected (testing) and what I know works better for her (hands on experience, learning in a way that doesn’t feel like school most of the time, absorbing relevant and interesting information).

    She’s started taking some classes on Open2Study, which has given us the opportunity to walk her through the basics of how to take multi-choice tests. That is a skill you use throughout your life, so it has value lol she’s getting much better at breaking down the questions to figure out what they are actually asking, and look for clues as to the type of answer they are looking for, and then looking at all the answers (no snap decisions anymore) to find the right one. As you highlighted, half the battle of passing a test is knowing what is expected, and that doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) take years to learn. The upshot of this is that she is learning about things she is actually interested in, and has some certificates to highlight that she’s passed the classes, and that will look good if the Ministry ever comes knocking!

    So, I guess the short answer is – there are lots of games and apps with progress reports, and online classes that mark progress. I may never formally sit my kids down and test them – I can SEE that they are learning, and as the poster above’s friend said, when they ‘get it’ you can move on to the next thing (though I note the things they have worked on, and progress made, again, in case I get reviewed by the Ministry). I guess I look at learning as a lifelong process, not a series of tick boxes, ya know? I’m inventing the ‘boxes’ to tick, as and when they apply to my kids, so that I can note that down, but the kids are not aware of any of that, so it never gets in the way of their education.

    Anyway, sorry for the long ramble!

    • Blokeschool says:

      Actually, I think its quite an interesting ramble, and it brings up some points worth thinking about.
      The whole ‘what if they go back to school’ argument is a weird one, although pretty common. If you were to follow such an argument to its logical extreme, you would find yourself in a very strange and unhelpful place, that would clearly show what a ridiculous argument it is in the first place. I like your response to this.
      I think your girls racing ahead in some areas, but not others is totally normal. Everybody plays to their strengths. Now that you have said it though, it causes me to wonder if this shows up more in homeschooling kids because there is not a constant race to the middle. I’m not sure.
      I just came across the Open2Study site the other day. It looks excellent. As you say, both it, and plenty of other places come with the opportunity to practice sitting a test without having the undercurrent of fear we are all taught to have in such circumstances. Plus the magic piece of paper always makes things a little smoother.
      Finally, I like your reminder that we are the ones making the boxes to tick. I think keeping them hidden really does allow them to be used the way they should be intended to, and stop them from ‘getting in the way of their education.’

  3. We tend to asses both through testing and through daily work. We work until they understand each concept fully, but we also do an occasional test. This helps them become familiar with a general test atmosphere and the procedure in which they are administered.

    As much as I would love to homeschool them the entire way through until college, I do not know what the future holds. If my children needed to be placed into public education, I want to know they would be able to assimilate and function properly. Also, at some point in life a test will be administered by someone other than myself, why not prepare them for this? Most jobs require a short assessment, who knows if college is on the menu, or which field of work they might wish to go in to? By testing, occasionally, throughout their youth, I am providing them with life skills they might need in the future.

    Now, these test do not make up a large portion of their grade, but it helps them asses how they are doing without my help and lets me know how they do both ‘under pressure’ and on their own.

    We do not place a great deal of weight on these assessments, they are simply a tool. As one friend, “This is not a test of my child’s abilities, but an assessment of how I am doing as a teacher. Is my child retaining what he is being taught?”

    Very thought provoking!

  4. Incidentally, as we prefer a mastery method of education (not moving on until a concept is fully learned), our reports cards are always a breeze to complete; all straight A’s! Tests are never a stressful event in our home and our kiddos move right through them, like they would any other assignment.

    Why the grades? Our PSP requires this. Frankly, I don’t find them particularly useful, but, hey, I gotta follow rules!

  5. Blokeschool says:

    I find this answer intriguing, because it seems to lean more to the ‘provide them with life skills’, and less to the assessment side of things. I think that a mastery method of education radically shifts the focus of what assessments are all about. I like it as a system, and very much like that it can be pursued in a homeschool environment. Certainly, I cannot imagine it in a classroom.
    I like your point that a test assesses the teacher more then the student. I think it is a point which is easily lost.

  6. I don’t plan on formally testing our two (11 &7). When I was a school teacher the main reasons that I tested the students were…
    1. Accountability, mainly to the school to show I’d done my job, and to some degree to parents.
    2. For Reporting, marks made up a percentage of overall grades, along with class work.
    3. To check that my students really did or didn’t know what I thought they did, sometimes I was surprised, but rarely.
    4. Because the Federal Government said I had to.
    In truth, I hated doing ‘tests’ because I felt that they never gave a true indication of a students deeper understanding for a topic, or even if they didn’t really get it at all. Kids become masters at recognising the way that they are expected to work out a problem, and the response that the teacher is looking for, even if they’ve got no idea how to apply what they’ve learnt to real life situations.
    I think that with my own two learners at home now, none of these reasons to test really seem valid. I’ll know when they’ve mastered something because I’ll see them apply it, or they’ll independently move on to higher levels of difficulty.
    PS trust me when I say, that if your kids ever go to school, the teacher will barely look at any prior test results. I never knew one yet who didn’t want to make their own informal assessment early on. I probably would have just cast my eye over some work samples to get a picture of the students capabilities…. Ha Ha, sorry, my comments aren’t usually so lengthy! Good conversation you’ve started here 🙂

  7. Blokeschool says:

    That is a very interesting list of reasons for testing in schools. I agree that none of it seems valid in a homeschooling scenario. I like the ‘watching them apply it, or move on to something more difficult’ method of assessment.
    Your final point gives me a little chuckle, because I am facing an assessment of my own soon. The Board of Studies assessor will be around in the next few weeks looking at my application for homeschooling. Opinions vary, but the crux of the whole thing appears to be the assessor informally casting his eye over some work samples to get a picture of the students capability. The rest of it just seems to be box ticking.

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